Sunday 12 April 2020

The Pursuit of Happiness In Zanzibar

Zanzibar Tanzania

"The number one thing in life is to be happy."

Joseph, my tour driver, posits with the air of an adult trying to instil wisdom into a miscreant. He looks back at me, teeth bared with the grin of a person who anticipates appreciation. Being quasi-profound is part of his itinerary, I guess.

I nodded and turned to the window, not wanting to be rude but not eagerly looking to prolong the sermon as well.

Our vehicle was trying to push and shove its way through the pandemonium of Darajani Bazaar. Regiments of pop-up vendors selling spices, meat, fish, toys, electronics or assortments on carts lined the curbs. Under their nose, another rank of vendors with their goods spread out on a bedsheet. The spectacle was engrossing enough to not ponder further on Joseph's insistence that life was pointless if not for the quest for happiness.

I saw him. I heard him. But I didn't resonate.

Not then, not there.

* * *

Plattenbauten Michenzani neighbourhood in Zanzibar Tanzania

We were trundling through the Michenzani neighbourhood, infamous for its sprawling, functionalist apartment blocks. The Plattenbauten, or the large-panel system buildings, once well-touted icons of Zanzibar now stood in undeniable decadence. The taxi came to a stop outside a narrow alley. The driver motioned that the journey was over, and the rest would have to be traversed on foot. A labyrinth of narrow paths nestled between coral stone buildings was at our bidding. So, stepping past the maze of shops, alleys, barazas and restaurants, we entered Stone Town.

If there is a measure for the highest density of cultural significance, Stone Town would be up there. It is possible to walk past the House of Wonders, Omani Old Fort, Christ Church, House of Freddie Mercury and Palace Museum in just under fifteen minutes. For a man grown up in wide sprawling urban spaces with broad roads, Stone Town could have easily been agonisingly claustrophobic. In a new city, country and continent, it could have been inescapably foreboding.

It probably would have been, had it not been for the Zanzibari touch.

I am not new to this - the narrow gullies, impromptu gatherings, frolicking children and crooning hum accompanying daybreak chores. All are judiciously splattered across my homeland, India. Elements that civilised societies might find archaic, we found intimate. In Zanzibar too, the proximity of the buildings reflected the intimacy of its residents. The elderly hunched together, smoking cigarettes, playing board games and watching football on a small bunny-eared television set. The children scampered around with glee, running errands and chasing cycles. At sunrise each day, the women would grace their verandahs to sing folk songs of the ages.

Each morning in Stone Town, I was awakened by the thronging resonance of folk songs, ballads and hymns. Of its words, lyrics or meaning I had not the faintest idea. But it remained alluringly comforting, like the evocative lullabies of my childhood.

Stone Town was crumbling, of that there was no doubt. But in it, Zanzibar was truly alive.

Stone Town Zanzibar

I have seen it, time and again.

Local cuisines, folk songs, familial traditions or architecture: cultural roots are often entrenched with the poor, underprivileged and proletariat. All of them, unfortunate externalities of poverty. I don't advocate poverty, and never will. But as countries progress, people get richer and development becomes more than a buzzword, progress inadvertently ends up cleansing their essence for homogenous luxuries.

Conflict breeds culture.

I am aware this argument teeters on the borders of heated contention, so I must confine it to subjective experience. Personally, I have found greater happiness in local street food than at a luxurious restaurant. I have been beguiled by soul of local folk songs more often than mainstream hits. I have marvelled the architecture of traditional houses more than modern residential complexes. Invariably, it has been the art created in war, famine or depression that has evoked my interest.


I would wager that we created culture to escape. Through food, music or art, we were able to elope, albeit fleetingly, into an abstraction of joy, wonder and magic. The creation endures centuries, despite the transience of our indulgence in it.

An ethereal ecstasy shines through these cultural works of art. It is so rich, so deep, so pervasive that I, a mere bystander, am able to feel it, reach within and drown in it.

In Zanzibar too, it was in the cobbled alleyways of Stone Town, around the sizzling aromas pervading the Forodhani Gardens, the inimitable daladalas or under the inescapable trance of Taraab music that I got a glimpse of their culture. In those moments, I was no longer a tourist.

I was one of them.

* * *

"Hakuna matata."

My first foray into African lands brought with it the suspension of disbelief. 'Hakuna Matata' - a phrase the world resonates with The Lion King was found in plenty. It was uttered by waiters, vendors, hawkers, coolies and bellboys. At times, it started dialogue while in others it served as the end. It was found submerged in the waters, wafting over the plains or even brought down with the blessed rains.

The Zanzibaris intentionally overdid it. They uttered it as a 'hello', as a 'thank you', as a 'sorry' or as a filler for any word they deemed suitable. Why bother with the right word when you could just 'hakuna matata' it? They knew tourists associated Africans with this phrase - this is what they came to hear isn't it? So they rained 'Hakuna matata's all over until we were flooded with it.

Even for incidents that were undeniably and undisputedly a problem, the trembling Zanzibari could not get himself to admit it. As his lips began to shape the admission into existence, he would choke and bend over, fighting the indomitable spirit of African tranquillity. Sweat would pour down his face, and his eyes would silently plead for mercy but it was not to be. For I could have burnt down my hotel, stolen the crown jewels and burnt half the city to ruin, it was not in his nature to lament the languishing of life.

It had to be a 'hakuna matata'.

If, by some luck, you manage to engage a Zanzibari in conversation beyond his agenda - then on a very rare instance, you might find the discourse veering towards the ordinary struggles of daily life. You are no longer conversing as local and tourist or seller and buyer. For a fleeting moment, you are conversing as humans. But alas, before you could probe further, unseen sensory nerves snap and jolt the Zanzibari from their trance. A shake of the head, a near-instant change in demeanour succeeded by an exceedingly jovial 'hakuna matata'. A bounding injection of 'no worries' to compensate for a conversation that nearly got too morose.

It is not the Zanzibari way to mope over life, circumstances or problems.

But how could you not? The poverty you read about - it is true. The dilapidation, diseases and degeneracy - they are true. The children of Africa, emaciated beyond comprehension - all true.

They exist in a region beset with problems, yet they look past it daily to emulate a life of no worries and no problems.

Page Beach Zanzibar

* * *

Zanzibar stands for 'the land of the blacks'.

Sharif tears apart an achiote seed and spears his lips with the paste it exudes. He calls it the 'lipstick fruit', and as he flashes a wide grin with lips painted lurid orange, I have no qualms over the origin of the name.

Ali, his colleague and our tour guide at this spice farm, chuckles at our bewilderment. This must be one of his favourite parts of the tour. While Sharif beamed and pouted with orange lips, climbed coconut trees and made hats out of leaves, Ali found delight in our reactions. The spices stayed the same every tour, but the people, their stories and their reactions kept him going.

He was startled to learn that we were of the same age. Deeply layered strata of privileges assimilated to bring me to Zanzibar as a tourist on vacation, while he worked as a part-time tour guide and full-time computer science student. His dream was to create a website for tours in Zanzibar. He yearned to create a life where he could confidently propose to his lady love.

Ali or Sharif didn't deserve this, but they didn't know better.

Spice Farm Zanzibar

How could they not? They were doomed from birth by the colour of their skin, rather than the content of their character. The spices they proudly display to me sustain their livelihoods today. Ironically, these spices were also the primary reason they were set back in time. The abundance of resources was too hard to ignore for the world's colonisers, multiples at a time. A two-hundred-year Portuguese colonisation ended with the hegemony of Oman. The Sultanate of Zanzibar, central to the Arab slave trade, left a mark so indelible, so penetrative that you would still find glimpses today.

The Old Fort of Zanzibar need not be the only conspicuous reminder of erstwhile Omani dominion. The kummah, traditional Omani headgear, still adorns the heads of a large number of Zanzibari men. I found it strange that Zanzibaris would proudly flout the adornments of their oppressors. When I posed this query to Joseph, he looked to the skies with a grimace of helplessness. For a moment, the man preaching eternal happiness betrayed a profound sadness in his eyes.

"They think it was right. They believed in the Sultanate of Zanzibar."

Believed in it? Believed in the devilry of slave trade? The rationale for this is lost on me, but I cannot comment on it further. Surely, the intricacies of reasoning are beyond my understanding of the Zanj region. It is true that the Sultans also ended up abolishing slave trade. Zanzibar's growth under their reigns is well documented. The fact that it is an ancestral home to several Omanis further complicates the dynamic. It is best I leave my judgements unuttered, knowing fully well that in my own country Hindu nationalists believe in mob-lynching. Western countries have armed activists marching the streets despite a clear correlation between freely available guns and school-shootings, so it must be a matter of perspective.

I'm sure there must be some convolution to it all. I just couldn't see it, not when placed in comparison to the oppressive malevolence of slavery.

The Olduvai Gorge of Tanzania is often touted as the birthplace of homo sapiens. Nestled in the Great Rift Valley on the eastern Serengeti Plains, hominids began their evolution into hominins (ultimately into humans). In this gorge, palaeontologists discovered the first traces of stone tools along with signs of scavenging activities.

I found it ironic that Tanzania was the site of cognitive evolution along with slave trade at different periods in time.

The place that gave birth to humans was also the place where we lost our humanity.

Slave Monument Memorial Zanzibar

* * *

"The number one thing in life is to be happy."

I turn back from the window to find Joseph still beaming. The wide grin is boring into me like a dagger. It is commendable he finds the happiness in little things, in a place that has much to weep about. Misery, grief and hatred have been sown into Africa. For regions that consider themselves unfortunate for not having any natural resources, Africa is prime example of why they should be glad. Treasures of the land seduced colonisers, and Africans were left worse than they would have been otherwise. Fortune and fame, rats and cheese. 

In midst of it all, tattered, bruised and anachronistically impaired, the land of Africa. 

* * *

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